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Obesity, Food Safety, Most Important Nutrition Policy Issues

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nutrition and health

Nutrition and food safety issues are becoming increasingly important in developing policy, both nationally and internationally. Maureen Storey, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP), talked to Newsdesk about food and nutrition issues that will be increasingly important and about the work of CFNAP. Storey, who has a Ph.D in nutrition, is also acting director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), a joint research center of the University of Maryland and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Q - What do you see as the big food and nutrition stories in the next year or two?

Forecasting food, nutrition, and agriculture policy issues is fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, obesity is a worldwide problem that is affecting most countries and is especially a problem among youth. I also think that advertising and promotion of food to children will continue to be a big nutrition and food story in the next year or so. With regard to food safety, I think bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and related transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), contaminants in foods, such as mercury in fish and shellfish, acrylamide in starchy foods, and other intentional and/or naturally-occurring contaminants will continue to be of concern for public policy makers and regulators.

Q - What are America's most important nutrition and food issues?

Obesity is one of the most important health issues in the U.S., but it not simply a food issue. It is a lifestyle issue. Physical activity is just as important in solving this public health problem. We all know - but like to forget - that maintaining a healthy weight is a balance between how much food (i.e., calories) we eat versus how physically active we are (i.e., calories used up). Obesity rates have also been influenced by many broader social and economic trends. Many positive developments, such as lowering the use of tobacco products and introducing labor-saving devices to improve productivity at work and home, may have also contributed to the increase in overweight and obesity rates.

With regard to food safety, there are myriad issues. As free trade allows more and more importation of foods, the U.S. regulatory system will be challenged to address new and difficult food safety issues. In addition, newly discovered substances in foods that may pose a safety threat require a rapid response and may potentially divert critical and over-extended regulatory resources.

Q - What important strides have been made?

The U.S. food supply is safe, abundant, and affordable, and anti-poverty programs have reduced hunger and malnutrition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available year-round in most parts of the country. Many deficiency diseases have been practically eradicated through effectively targeted fortification programs. Most recently, the incidence of neural tube defects in newborns - which can lead to a wide range of very serious problems with the central nervous system - has been dramatically reduced due, in large part, to the fortification of grain products with folic acid.

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Q - What are the barriers to making changes in food and nutrition policy?

There is still a lot that we don't know about the relationships between nutrition and health, and we know even less about how government policy can help individuals make positive, long-term lifestyle changes. The biggest barrier to making changes in food and nutrition policy is asking the right question in the research agenda so that policy options are based on facts rather than rhetoric and histrionics.

Q - What does the Center for Food, Nutrition & Agriculture Policy do?

The Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP) conducts research and puts together outreach events that help inform the public and policy makers on public health issues, especially those dealing with food and nutrition.

Q - Is your work different from other university-based nutrition study groups?

Yes and no. First, our work at CFNAP is similar to other university-based nutrition or food science research that focuses primarily based on epidemiological data. However, we don't conduct any laboratory or bench-top research. Second, our research is conducted within the context of public health and public policy questions that need to be addressed, especially as they may be considered by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other policy-making or regulatory bodies.

Q - Are you an advocacy group?

No, we are not an advocacy group and we don't lobby. CFNAP is an academic research and outreach organization. Our goal is to make the best science and analysis available to policymakers at the time they are faced with a decision. Unlike advocacy groups, all of our research is published in peer-reviewed professional journals. We believe that better analysis will lead to better policy. Eventually.

Q - Some of the Center's work has been funded by groups such as the American Beverage Association. What about conflict of interest?

First, it's possible that organizations that provide funds to CFNAP 's research program will not benefit from our findings. CFNAP retains complete control over the design, analysis, and interpretation of our studies, and the results may not be favorable to the organization's position. Regardless of the results, we publish our studies in the transparent process of the peer-review system for our professional colleagues to scrutinize, support, or challenge in the manner customary to our scientific profession.